Graves on the Writing Process

This summer, I consider my professional companion to be Donald Graves, one of the most influential thinkers in the history of writing instruction. As I prep for fall teaching, consider how writing and literacy instruction overlap, and research new pieces on the writing process and life, I’m reading, eagerly but deliberately, Graves’s 1983 book, Writing: Teachers & Children at Work.

Writing developed from Graves’s groundbreaking National Institute of Education study on writing instruction in the late 70s. There is much to learn from his research, thinking, and recommendations. But my favorite Graves lesson, by far, comes 85% of the way through Writing (p 270). I believe my friends in both writing and education will like it too:


After four years of working with the study in Atkinson, New Hampshire, when all the data were in and the information brewed down to the most important finding, we recorded that:


Variance is the norm, not the exception.


Right? Love and need the caps. No matter how many common habits we find in our writing processes, and no matter how many lists of rules and routines are distributed within the literary community, and no matter how many presentations on steps from topic choice to proofreading are given to young writers, variability is built into the core of the craft. In other words, sometimes writing feels great and floats along and the words seem to choose themselves and the meaning is so clear and revision is a blast. But sometimes writing is muddled. Out of our control. Just out of reach.

Graves goes on:


Good teaching enhances even greater variation. The more risks a writer takes, and the more tools at the writer’s disposal to carry out an audacious intention, the more the writing will vary in quality…


Good writing teachers get that variability is core, and they capitalize on it.

Good writers, too, understand it. They have maddening days at work. They mess up, often publicly, and face the critic-hoard. They get up the next day and write again.